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A Wired World In Its Own Mirror

March 11th, 2011 - 6:56 pm

Visit the YouTube Japan earthquake video upload page here. One of the most viewed videos was taken in first-person “shooter view” in what seems to be a Japanese residence. The person manages to capture the video, evacuate the house and get everybody outside with only a slight trace of nervousness.

Although the trend began with backpacker-contributed footage of the tsunami that hit Thailand, uploads to the Japanese earthquake video YouTube site suggests that from now on, most of the archival video footage of public events in the world will be taken by amateurs.  Cameras are ubiquitous and people know it. Three people in California were swept away as they stood near the beach waiting to take pictures of the tsunami. One is still missing, according to the Wall Street Journal, which writes:

Three people taking pictures of the surf near the mouth of the Klamath River, about 20 miles south of Crescent City, Calif., were surprised by large waves and swept into the water, said Cindy Henderson, emergency services officer for Del Norte County. Two of the people struggled out of the surf and a male in his 20s is still missing, and is now the focus of a search and rescue operation, said a Coast Guard spokesman.

People feel the same natural thrill at capturing an extraordinary event and posting it online as photojournalists must have once  felt when they found themselves on the scene at some momentous occasion. It may have cost one of those three men in Crescent City his life. And though it is not without its drawbacks, the emergence of literally millions of unique data capturing points, especially in a place as dense with electronics as Japan, means that we have a far richer dataset on which to base history.

Photojournalists will still dominate scheduled events, like sporting matches and press conferences, with their pro equipment and training.  But statistics is against them when it comes to capturing news. The world is big and professional photojournalists are few. The chances of one of them being in exactly the right place at the right time is about the same as a being on Haifa Street at precisely the moment when insurgents decide to kill an Iraqi election worker right in front of your camera.

It might happen, but it won’t happen too often. For good or ill, the chroniclers of our times will be the event participants themselves.

Terrible earthquakes have happened in the past, but the experience was confined, if not memorialized in breathing prose, only to those who immediately felt it. Today, it may be vicariously experienced by everyone. How will public data capture change our behavior or the knowledge of ourselves? Who knows? But it will change us. A few months ago there was video showing some political partisans driving up and down the street tearing down signs. They were confronted by some bystanders, whose protests they ignored until they were informed that their destruction was being recorded on video and that they “would be on YouTube in a few hours.”

They stopped. It works, for now; and for as long as someone cares enough about how we collectively look in our electronic mirror.  But how much will we care? And if a bigger event than even the earthquake occurs, like a global meltdown, will future generations be able to relive the collapse on YouTube?


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